- Pawn structure is very important in a chess game, as pawns make up the “skeleton” of a chess position, and often indicate where your pieces should go and where to attack
- Pawns can only move forward, and can only capture diagonally. The fact that pawns can never move back is a fundamental concept underlying chess strategy
- Pawns have a special capture available to them – the en passant capture – where they can capture enemy pawns next to them which just came from their starting square
- Doubled pawns are generally a weakness, though may provide some benefits to the owner. Isolated doubled pawns and tripled pawns are almost always a liability
- Backward pawns are connected to other pawns but are not protected by them; therefore, they can be a target for attack
- Groups of connected pawns are called pawn islands. Generally speaking, the less pawn islands you have, the better
- Squares which cannot be defended by pawns are often weak and known as ‘holes.’ Players can take advantage of a hole by establishing an outpost with a minor piece such as a knight
- Certain pawn structures arise naturally from various openings. For example, the Carlsbad Structure arises from many mainline variations of the Queen’s Gambit Declined. The Pawn Chain, Stonewall, and Caro-Slav are other common pawn structures
- These pawn structures entail typical strategies for both sides; players who are more knowledgeable about the pawn structure in any given middlegame position will have a strategic advantage
“Pawns are the soul of chess.” – François-André Danican Philidor
This quote by the 18th century chess legend is often surprising, or even just laughed or shrugged off by many amateur players. How can the weakest figure among the chess pieces really be that important?
But mastering how to move these misunderstood mini-warriors is essential to play chess at a high level.
That ancient quote by Philidor holds true even today for one key reason: pawns are the only figure on the chess board that cannot move backward.
That may seem obvious to anyone who knows the basics of chess, but it really is a profound truth! Think about it this way: any time you move a pawn, you make a permanent change to the game – something that cannot be undone.
Couple that fact with the fact that there are numerous pawns for each side – eight to be exact – and you’ll come to find that pawns make up the “skeleton” of every position. In fact, the structure of your pawns can often guide your pieces where to go, and indicate the direction of attack.
In this article, you’ll learn the basics of pawn structure and pawn moves in chess and what these mean for the rest of your strategy. We’ll start out by reviewing the basics, and then start to tackle “mainline pawn structures” that occur in common openings, and what the basic plans for each side are (if you’re above beginner level, you may want to skip to the section “Common Mainline Pawn Structures” – although it certainly can’t hurt to review the basics!).
Thinking In Chess: A How To Guide
Review: How Pawns Move
Pawn moves are tricky, especially for new players. There are, after all, more rules about pawn moves than any other piece!
Generally, pawns can only move forward, one space at a time.There’s one important exception though: on their first move, they can each move two spaces (or just one – it’s not a necessity to move two spaces).
Pawns can only capture another piece diagonally, like so:
These pawns can each capture each other, because they are facing each other diagonally
Since they can only capture diagonally, pawns cannot advance forward when there is another pawn or piece in its way. Instead, they simply “butt heads”, stuck there until the obstruction is cleared. Note that a pawn cannot move diagonally unless it is capturing a piece. Pawns can never mode sideways or backward.
These pawns cannot capture each other, and can’t advance – they are locked together, “butting heads”
When a pawn reaches the other side of the board, it can promote, or turn into another piece. You can turn a pawn into any piece you want, except for another pawn or a king. Since the queen is the most powerful piece in chess, in 99% of cases you’ll want to turn the promoted pawn into a queen. But in some rare cases you might want to underpromote by turning the pawn into a rook, bishop, or knight – for example, when creating a queen would put the enemy king in stalemate.
When promoting, it doesn’t matter how many of that piece are already on the board. If you already have a queen, you can have another one. One game between legendary players Bobby Fischer and Tigran Petrosian featured four queens!
A Special Rule: Capturing en Passant
Pawns also have a tricky rule associated with them, called “capturing en passantstrong>” (from the French for “in passing”).
If you’re playing the game as White and you have a pawn on the 5th rank, and your opponent moves a pawn on an adjacent file two moves from its starting pawn – meaning that pawn also lands on the 5th rank – you can capture that pawn en passant, like so:
Likewise, if you’re playing the game as Black, you can do the same thing if your pawn is on the 4th rank (from White’s perspective), and your opponent moves a pawn on an adjacent file two spaces so that it also lands on the fourth rank.
An important feature of en passant is that it can only be executed on that turn – i.e., right when your opponent makes that pawn move. If you choose not to capture en passant, you can no longer capture that enemy pawn en passant.
Capturing en passant is not necessarily a good move, and therefore you should think carefully each time you do it (and before you move your own pawns which can be captured en passant!) Like most things in chess, it depends on the situation.
Pawn Structure Basics: Doubled Pawns
Because pawns capture diagonally, two pawns can share the same file. When this happens, the pawns are said to be doubled. All other things being equal, doubled pawns are a weakness. This is because pawns are much stronger in a row, when they have the ability to defend each other. By doubling the pawns, you remove a potential defender of the pawn next to it.
In many cases, doubled pawns are not a major weakness, and can even have some benefits. For example, take a look at this position, where Black just captured White’s piece on b3, and White recaptured with the a-pawn, creating double pawns.
In this case double pawns are not much of a weakness, because White gets something in return: a nice, open highway for their rook!
Doubled pawns can be a major weakness when they are isolated, meaning that there is no pawn on either side of them to add to their defense. Because they can only be defended by more valuable pieces like knights or bishops, isolated doubled pawns are often a ripe target for attack. And maybe needless to say, but tripled pawns are really bad!
Pawn Structure Basics: Pawn Islands
As mentioned in the last section, pawns are strong together in a line, when they can easily defend one another. And remember, isolated pawns are often a liability. That stands to reason that the less pawn islands you have, the better.
A pawn island is simply a group of connected pawns. Take a look at the position below. How many pawn islands does White have? What about Black?
White has two pawn islands while Black has four! For that reason, Black stands weaker, because he has a lot of areas in his position which are difficult to defend. White’s pieces will easily target those and White should win the game, even though White and Black have the same number of pawns and pieces.
Pawn Structure Basics: Backward Pawns
Similar to isolated pawns, backward pawns are not defended by another pawn, and thus easy targets for attack. In the position below, Black’s pawn on d6 is a backward pawn. Although it does support the e-pawn, it will have a hard time advancing to d5 without getting captured. As a result, White would do well to add pressure to this sitting duck while it’s stuck on d6. This backwards d-pawn struggle is a common feature in many variations of the Sicilian Defense. If Black manages to solve this problem of the backward pawn, they’ll often be better. But if not, they’ll often be struggling to defend it – potentially with game-losing consequences!
Black’s d-pawn is backward
Pawn Structure Basics: Passed Pawns
A passed pawn is a pawn that has passed the enemy pawns on either side of it, meaning that no enemy pawn will ever oppose it going forward. In the position below, for example, White’s e-pawn is a passed pawn.
From there on out, that e-pawn will never have to deal with any harassment from Black’s pawns ever again – making its goal of promoting and becoming a queen much easier!
For that reason, a passed pawn is generally an advantage to its owner. Even better is a connected passed pawn, also known as a protected passed pawn, i.e., a passed pawn with another pawn at its side backing it up. These are especially advantageous in the endgame, where capturing one of the pawns will allow the other to promote.
Take this position for example:
Black can’t capture the d-pawn with his king, because it’s protected by the e-pawn. But if they capture the e-pawn (defender of the d-pawn), the d-pawn will just run away and promote, never to be caught by the enemy king!
Pawn Structure Basics: Holes and Outposts
When a square cannot be defended by a pawn, it is usually weak. Let’s visit a previous position again:
The d5 square cannot be protected by any pawns, meaning the White knight can jump to this hole very easily, creating an outpost. In an outpost, a piece cannot be attacked by pawns, and it is often supported by its own pawn, creating a very strong point for that piece. In general, outposts are very advantageous for these reasons!
Common Mainline Pawn Structures
With the basics out of the way, let’s talk about how you can use pawn structure to form your strategy in chess.
Generally, certain pawn structures are associated with certain openings. When we say pawn structure, in this case we are referring to the structure of all the pawns together in the position – that “skeleton” of the position that we referred to earlier.
Take this pawn structure for example, which commonly arises from the Dutch Defense, London System and other openings.
It’s known as the Stonewall, and is recognized by the fact that the pawns form a very sturdy grid that’s difficult to break through.
In Stonewall positions, these locked-together pawns usually mean slower maneuvering play as opposed to flashy tactics (though certainly not always – always be on the lookout for tactics!) Generally, knights become more valuable than bishops, as they can take useful outposts and easily hop around the pawns, upon which the bishops collide.
Let’s take a look at some other major pawn structures you should know about.
The Carlsbad Structure
The Carlsbad structure arises from many mainline variations of the Queen’s Gambit Declined and Caro-Kann Defense. It usually looks like this, but can be reversed, as in the Caro-Kann.
A common plan in the Carlsbad structure is the minority attack. Notice that in the position above, White has a majority of pawns on the kingside, while Black has a majority of pawns on the queenside. White can ‘divide and conquer’ the Black queenside majority by use of the minority attack.
How does this work? White can launch their b-pawn up the board, looking to advance it to the b5 square so that it attacks Black’s c6 pawn. If Black captures White’s pawn on b5, they will have created an isolated pawn on d5 for White to attack. If they don’t do anything and just let White capture on c6, after Black recaptures with bxc6, they’ll have a backward pawn, which is also weak!
Since either case is bad, Black is usually wise to prevent the minority attack by controlling it with pieces and pawns.
Knowing how this works from White’s point of view in the Queen’s Gambit Declined, what would your strategy be in this position, from the Exchange Variation of the Caro-Kann Defense?
After sliding your rook over to b8, you could then push your b-pawn up the board to b4, attacking c3 in a minority attack. It’s just a Carlsbad structure in reverse!
See a real-world example of a minority attack in this article, where International Master Malcolm Pein analyzes a game between two professional players.
Pawn Chain Structures
Many openings lend themselves to locked up pawn chains in the center of the board – the French Defense being one of the most common examples. Consider this position from the Advance Variation of the French Defense.
Notice how the center of the board is locked together with pawns, creating a sort of “no man’s land” in that area. That indicates that each player should attack on the wings. A good rule of thumb in these types of positions is to attack in the direction of your pawn structure. Therefore, Black should attack on the queenside while White should attack on the kingside.
A kingside attack for White seems pretty straightforward – transfer your pieces to the kingside and go for mate! But what about Black?
Black has a few options at their disposal. Notice they made a pawn break with the pawn on c5. A pawn break is a device used to crack open a file and allow more freedom for the pieces to move in a player’s position. At any time, Black can capture on d4 with the c-pawn, undermining White’s center and clearing the way for his pieces – such as a rook or queen – to control the c-file.
Black can also launch their a- and b- pawns down the file, creating weaknesses for attack (similar to the way it’s done in the minority attack) or try to get one of those pawns to promote. In such situations, it’s usually a race who can launch their attack faster – White’s kingside attack or Black’s queenside attack.
As you might have guessed by the name, this type of pawn structure often arises in the Caro-Kann Defense and Slav Defense. However, you’ll discover that the Caro-Slav family has roots in many openings – such as the Catalan and the Scandinavian Defense – making it one of the most common and important to know in all of chess!
Consider the position below:
In this position, the Caro structure, Black has a pawn on c6 and e6, creating a vice grip on the center: namely the d5 square. White has a majority on the queenside while Black has a majority on the kingside. Note that White’s e-pawn is missing.
In this similar position, the Slav formation, it’s basically the same – except this time it’s the c-pawn that’s missing for White.
These two structures lead to very similar strategies. For Black, it’s usually about making a c- or e-pawn break to create activity in the center of the board.
White can also break open the center (sometimes with a pawn sacrifice!) to create activity or focus on using their majority on either side of the board in an advantageous way – say for example, an endgame where a majority of pawns beat a minority of pawns to promote.
Summary and Further Reading
Unfortunately and fortunately, there are many different pawn structures in chess to know! It’s unfortunate in the sense that it can be a lot to learn (way more than the scope of this article), but fortunate in the sense that each structure brings a huge array of possibilities for the strategy of each side.
You should take time to learn about the structures in the openings you commonly use. Most opening courses will talk about the pawn structure to some degree – make sure you pay attention to these key ideas and not just memorize the moves! These “pawn keys” often indicate a general strategy for the middlegame, and can guide you when you’re at a loss for what to do. And if your opponent isn’t familiar with these structures (most opponents aren’t!), you’ll have a huge advantage over them strategically.
So where can you learn more pawn structure? Here are some books and Chessable courses which can help:
The Power of Pawns: Chess Structures Fundamentals for Post-Beginners by Grandmaster Jorg Hickl – an excellent course for amateur players that will drill and expand on many of the topics covered in this article
Small Steps for Giant Improvement by GM Sam Shankland – though more about pawn play in general rather than pawn structures, this book is essential reading for any serious player!
Small Steps 2 Success by GM Sam Shankland – the superb sequel to Small Steps for Giant Improvement
Frequently Asked Questions
What can a pawn do in chess?
Pawns generally move one space forward, or two on their first move. They can capture another piece only diagonally (otherwise they “butt heads” with the piece or pawn in front of them). Pawns can be promoted into any other piece (except another pawn or king) by advancing to the other side of the board.
How does a pawn become a queen?
A pawn becomes a queen by advancing it to the other side of the board – the 8th rank if you are White, and the first rank if you are Black.
What is the value of a pawn in chess?
Usually the value of pieces is weighed in pawns (for example, a rook is generally described as being worth 5 pawns), meaning that pawns are considered to be worth one point in chess.
When can a pawn go diagonally?
A pawn can move diagonally only when capturing an enemy pawn or piece.
Can a pawn move diagonally without taking a piece?
No. Pawns can only move diagonally when capturing an enemy pawn or piece.
Can a pawn ever move sideways?
No, pawns can only move forward or diagonally forward.
Can a promoted pawn be taken immediately?
Yes. If a pawn promotes into a queen or another piece, and an enemy piece is in a position to capture it, there is no rule to stop it from doing so.
Can a pawn take a king?
Technically, no pawn or piece can “take” a king – but you can check or checkmate a king with a pawn just as you can with a piece.
Is en passant always good?
Not necessarily. Capturing en passant is just another move among many you can make – you have to weigh the specific demands of that position before deciding whether to capture en passant or not.
Can a pawn move two steps?
Yes, each pawn can move two steps on its first move only. After that, it can only move forward one space at a time.